Top Massachusetts election official wants resources for possible census challenge

BOSTON, MA. – OCTOBER 5:  William Galvin, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth speaks in the Senate Reading Room at the State House talks about mail in voting on October 5, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts.   (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
BOSTON, MA. – OCTOBER 5: William Galvin, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth speaks in the Senate Reading Room at the State House talks about mail in voting on October 5, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
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BOSTON – After the U.S. Census Bureau pushed back by six months its delivery date of population and redistricting data, Massachusetts legislators will face a late-year scramble and a need to change the due date for redrawing local voting precincts, Secretary of State William Galvin said Tuesday.

Flagging “grave concerns” with the population count that ended earlier than expected, Galvin told lawmakers that it will be impossible to meet a late-summer statutory deadline to craft the building blocks for redistricting in the wake of the federal delay.

The Census Bureau’s announcement last month that states will receive redistricting population data by Sept. 30, rather than by the traditional March 31 deadline amid COVID-19 impacts, upended the process to carve out electoral lines. New precincts officially take effect at the end of the year, so lawmakers tasked with developing them will now have only a few months to do so.

Massachusetts cities and towns are required by state law to map out their precincts using the decennial population data, with first drafts due in June and the final lines needed by Aug. 25. The Legislature then uses those precincts as the puzzle pieces to configure the boundaries of all 200 state legislative districts as well as congressional districts, taking into account population shifts.

“This is an essential step in the process of preparing legislative districts and congressional districts by the Legislature,” Galvin said at a fiscal year 2022 budget hearing. “It’s important for our communities as well because these precincts are the building blocks of your local political establishments as well.”

Lawmakers will need to update state law in the coming months to push back those deadlines for cities and towns since they can no longer expect the necessary data in time.

Sen. William Brownsberger, co-chair of the Legislature’s Special Redistricting Committee, told the News Service that the deadline conflict for municipal voting precincts is “definitely on my radar,” though he said lawmakers have not yet decided how they will approach making the necessary changes.

The Census delay also creates another timeline crunch: the state constitution — which cannot be changed as easily as state law — requires that state representatives reside in the district they seek to represent for one year preceding the election. State senators only need to be a Massachusetts resident for at least five years before the election and a resident of the district on Election Day.

If the Legislature does not finish its work before Nov. 8, that one-year threshold could render challengers or incumbents who find themselves residing in a different district after the lines are redrawn ineligible to run.

Former Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill outlining the most recent round of new House and Senate districts on Nov. 3, 2011, then approved congressional districts that shed a seat about two weeks later.

Galvin told the Joint Ways and Means Committee that he is confident lawmakers will not encounter problems shifting the deadlines affected by the Census change. His more pressing concern, he said, is the accuracy of the data itself.

The Census Bureau halted its count on Sept. 30, one month earlier than originally planned.

Galvin said he is worried that decision will lead to inaccuracies in communities where populations are more difficult to reach, and he said officials have not yet been given a chance to “spot-check” the data.

“We have not been afforded that opportunity yet, which is even less understandable now that the Bureau has announced they’re not going to finish the numbers until September,” Galvin said.

President Joe Biden’s selection of Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to lead the Commerce Department could offer a foothold, Galvin said, adding that he will reach out to the department later this week to voice concerns about “inadequacies” with the population count.

While Galvin described the appropriation his office is set to receive from Gov. Charlie Baker’s $45.6 billion fiscal year 2022 budget as “adequate” on most fronts, he also floated the possibility of needing more money to bring a legal challenge against the population count.

“I have to caution that I am in no way satisfied or comfortable right now with the responses we’ve been getting, and I remain concerned about the accuracy of the numbers as it affects all of our cities and towns and particularly those who are hard to count,” Galvin said. “So I want to make sure that we’ll have the resources, should it be necessary, to further litigate or do other activities to make sure these numbers are both accurate and usable.”

Galvin and Democratic lawmakers are pushing this session to extend mail-in voting practices implemented last year to protect from health risks and make voting more convenient, and to supplement them with additional election reforms.

The secretary described the nearly $5.8 million in funding that Baker’s budget directs to the elections division as “not adequate,” calling for lawmakers to bump it up to at least $8 million to meet the costs of expanded voting by mail and maintaining a central voter registry.

On Monday, the House approved legislation (H 73) sponsored by House Minority Leader Brad Jones keeping mail-in voting authorization in place through June 30 so it can apply to springtime municipal elections. Lawmakers are also working on a permanent reform package.

Four Republican lawmakers — Sutton Sen. Ryan Fattman, Norfolk Rep. Shawn Dooley, Billerica Rep. Marc Lombardo and Southwick Rep. Nicholas Boldyga — wrote to House Speaker Ron Mariano on Tuesday calling for an in-depth review of how voting by mail fared in 2020 before any debate on an extension.

They said they want information from Galvin and municipal clerks about mail-in ballot applications returned as undeliverable mail, securing ballot drop boxes, and timely sharing of data.

“With several COVID19 vaccines being distributed among vulnerable populations and (herd) immunity coming further along, it is possible the Massachusetts no-fault vote by mail program will not be needed,” they wrote. “Despite this, if you insist that it is in your capacity as Speaker of the House, this legislative committee owes it to the voters of Massachusetts to find answers to these important questions before taking another step forward.”

Galvin told the Legislature’s budget-writers that his office is faring well financially, posting “rather remarkable” year-to-date revenues about $20 million higher than at the same point last year despite COVID-19’s impact. The revenues include registry of deeds collections tied to the robust real estate market.

“The registry of deeds, we’ve had record recordings and high revenues,” he said.

The secretary’s office has not been able to run tours during the pandemic, and Galvin said he hopes renovations can soon be completed to the State House’s West Lawn to allow resuming “abbreviated tours.”

He also suggested legislative leaders begin thinking about hosting urban summer camps for children this year, potentially using Department of Conservation and Recreation Properties.

“If this is to happen this summer, the planning has to begin right now,” Galvin said.